So last Friday I was sitting at the front desk in the law firm, answering phones and forwarding calls and signing for deliveries of Cobb salads for attorneys in depositions. I had the empty, vaguely itchy mental feeling that often means I need to read something, so I slid the wheely chair over to where the Washington Post was, did my best to remove the Style section as quietly as possible, and went to read the article on the back so I wouldn’t make noise by crinkling pages (my boss’s office is not far from the front, and her assistant is barely forty feet away from me, and Assistant and Boss are likethis). And there was an image from a photography exhibit at the Curator’s Office, and I had this sudden, overwhelming, ravenous craving for art.
The exhibit was the latest from Nick & Sheila Pye, a husband-and-wife team, newly divorced, who I had never heard of ever before I read the article on the back of the Style section. The article said their work drew from their relationship, but felt universal, that it had dark, Gothic themes but at the same time kept a quality of playfulness and experimentation, that elements of myth and religion and death and love were constant visitors in their photographs, but not heavy-handed. These are all things that match up beautifully with what I like in my reading material and would love to have said about my writing one day, but at that moment the reviewer could have been blathering about whatever she liked and it would hardly matter. This photo was breaking my heart every moment I looked at it, and I couldn’t stop looking. The image was of a dark-haired woman, drifting on tiptoe in from a calm gray sea and a peachy sky. Her hands were by her sides, arms flexed back just a little, like wings. One foot had rope looped around it, leashing her by the ankle to the waist of a blond man, sprawled asleep or unconscious on the sand. The woman’s toes were just grazing the foam of the last wavelets before she would reach the beach. She wasn’t looking at the man. She looked out at me, and I couldn’t read her expression but I knew I had to see her, bigger and clearer and closer, and I needed it badly.
I went on Saturday. Andrew, fortunately, was able to come along, too. The whole set-up of the exhibition–newly divorced couple, still so committed to their art if not each other that they still made beauty together–felt like something I wanted to see with my someone, or else not at all, and the craving was so bad I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t get some art in me. We got there, and realized the Curator’s Office is not a cute name for a gallery. The exhibit was in the curator’s office. We had to buzz her to have her let us up. Two of the photos hung over her desk, and she typed away on her computer while I moved from photo to photo, walking up so close my nose almost touched, or standing as far back as I could in the little room, and hugging my shoulders to keep from flying apart.
There was one other, besides the Aphrodite one of her coming in on the waves, that I loved. She was wearing a red dress, climbing a ladder that stopped in midair, her back turned to me. There was water again, and the black branches of trees just beginning to bud. And it’s so obvious that I would love the picture of this unknown woman climbing her ladder into whatever new nothing it means, here and now when I am working so hard and waiting for careers and proposals and publication and all these wonderful life things to happen. But I kept thinking about what she would do when she reached the top of that ladder, which was made of such old, creaky-looking wood, twisting in the wind. I wanted to know whether she would back out, or back down the ladder, or flail her arms and grab for the twigs nearby to steady herself, and then I remembered how much she had loved her photographer, and how much they both still loved this art to keep even that great pain from stopping them from joining together to make this. She was going to jump when she reached the top of the ladder, put one foot on either stem and push off and jump into that gray water, and the lens of the camera would rush forward to see if she was all right, and her head would surface a moment later, water streaming down her face, and she would look over and see that yes, the camera had caught her, just as she knew it would. And she would be laughing.
We spent an hour there, all in all, for six photos. I couldn’t stop looking. We took turns pointing out things we thought were beautiful, or sitting for ten or fifteen minutes at a time studying one in silence. I can’t tell you too much about what made them so amazing. I know very little about art, less about photography and the many things artists can do to make an actual image surreal, or make the quality of it more like a painting. I haven’t learned the language to explain what it is about light and color and expression that moves me, the way I could point out the beauties of a beloved author’s writing style. I do know I felt full by the time we left, so giddy I was almost skipping past the jazz bars and kebab places in downtown D.C.
I’m learning to trust these cravings, when they come. I had cravings to scribble, before I ever took a writing class, and filled pages of my diary wondering why I felt so antsy all of a sudden without a pencil in my hand. Maybe I need this kind of food, too, the freedom to sit still and look, as hard as I can, as images that show me what I would like to be able to do one day, even if I don’t plan on using a camera.
The exhibit’s still open for almost a month. If you’re anywhere near the D.C. area, please go. Please look. And tell me what you see.